Sunday, 19 February 2012

Body Gossip's Eating Disorder Awareness Week Campaign

Picture the scene: I’d spent the day teaching 300 teenagers in a secondary school in Surrey and now, here I was, in the very same hall which was the scene of my day’s graft, 4 hours later, ready to face their parents.

Something about parents makes me nervous. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because my Mum has always been a ‘best friend’ type figure in my life, way cooler and funnier than I could ever hope to be in my wildest imagination, and so at odds with other Mums of my generation who seemed to spend their lives either at home baking pies, or chasing corporate, high flying business careers, but were equally terrifying when uttering the word “grounded”.

Or perhaps it’s because my Gossip School class relies so heavily on humour (as Body Gossip Ruth says “it’s basically an hour of stand-up comedy which suddenly becomes incredibly profound and heart wrenching, out of nowhere”), and, when it comes to their children’s education, it’s been my experience that parents have a bit of a sense of humour bypass situation going on.

I feel at ease in a classroom full of teenagers, perhaps because I have mental age of about 16 myself (interestingly, many of the teachers I have spoken to express the same sentiment) and suddenly, when faced with “proper grown-ups”, I was a little terrified.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried. They laughed in all the right places. They were engaged, intelligent and just the right amount of cheeky. They asked a gazillion questions. By the end, they were suitably galvanized in all issues body image related. In essence, they were my perfect class. I should teach parents more often.

At the end of the session, a long line of, mainly mothers, queued along one side of the hall for a private chat. And that’s when it truly hit me – For every child battling body image and self-esteem issues, there’s at least one parent in utter anguish, fruitlessly hand wringing and wondering where the hell the guidebook is on THIS thorny issue (incidentally, they could do worse than to read Lynn Crilly’s ‘Hope with Eating Disorders’, out in April).

They were also, without exception, labouring under a, mainly media perpetuated misconception – Namely that all eating and body related issues are the result of a dark and unspeakable trauma. That because their children were consumed by body dissatisfaction, or engaging in unhealthy food behaviours, they MUST be being bullied or have suffered abuse in their formative years. And of course this belief magnified the guilt they were feeling for ‘missing’ whatever the cause of their child’s issue happened to be.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that, in a lot of cases, bullying and abuse doesn’t result in eating disorders. They undoubtedly, empirically, unarguably do. But the same causal link doesn’t work in reverse. Sometimes people abuse their mind and body because they’ve read too much Heat Magazine, or want to emulate the airbrushed images they see on the internet, or they feel inadequate compared to their mates.

And those people will probably not weigh five stone. They won’t qualify for immediate, urgent psychological and physical help from their GP. They might, if they are lucky, have been put on an 18 month waiting list for ‘counselling’. However, they’re likely to have been so inundated with ‘real life’ eating disorder stories featuring skeletal teenage girls standing in their bra and pants that they’ll feel they somehow ‘don’t qualify’ to ask for the help they need to battle their own demons.

Susie Orbach said in her address to Parliament last month that behaviours which have been completely normalised now – skipping meals, cutting our food groups, occasional purging, compulsive exercising, consumption of diet pills etc – would have been classified as a serious eating disorder when she first began practising as a Psychiatrist, back in the 1970s.

These behaviours aren’t seen as particularly serious, now, and are even advocated in certain glossy magazines as ‘quick fix, usually pre-holiday “fit into your bikini/skinny jeans” weight loss tools. Yet these behaviours can still lead to osteoporosis, depression, heart palpitations, inability to concentrate, suicidal tendencies, impairment of academic performance, bad circulation, hair loss, lack of menstruation, social isolation and general misery – Not things we’d ever wish upon Britain’s teenagers.

So, this Eating Disorder Awareness Week – Which starts tomorrow in the UK (20th February), Body Gossip are challenging the public to speak up about the eating disorders you can’t see, and wouldn’t necessarily expect.

There are a host of bulimics, compulsive eaters, compulsive exercisers, diet pill addicts, anorexics who ‘don’t look too thin’ and borderline body dysmorphics out there who deserve a voice. These people encompass a broad racial and social spectrum, come in all shapes a sizes and both genders. You know them. You might BE them.

Acknowledging these people will help us nip eating disorders in the proverbial bud, to take the relatively time and cost effective measures to get Britain back to physical and psychological health and let its inhabitants enjoy their lives.

Tweet your thoughts to @_BodyGossip or @BodyGossipTash and let’s give a voice to the eating disorders you cannot see.


  1. This is what frustrates me and it goes back to your post about there being more than one way to have an eating disorder.
    People get eating disorders for a million reasons.
    The fact that it is endlessy preached that you have to weigh x amount, look x way, or have suffered abuse etc just stops people from reaching out.
    All the time I hear; but I was never abused so I must not have a *real* problem.
    It saddens me greatly because they sit back, stay caged away and continue to feel worthless and even more guilty as they have been told, how can you be ill when nothing has happened.
    How can the media play a role in an eating disorder, you might think you have an eating disorder but you clearly don't.
    I don't think I'm making sense though I am sure you understand.

    And good to hear about the you are not 30 thing, as I never feel my age ;)

  2. We are all a product of our environment. From the moment we open ours eyes after our birth we start to take in everything we see, hear, touch, taste and emotionally experience. It forms us.

    This fact is not in dispute. From an early age babies are able to do astounding things like load up a video tape, press the correct button on a DVD player etc. All done as a result of copying those around us based on what we see.

    Again these facts are obvious to all and not disputed.

    So it is with astonishment, frustration and not a little anger, with which I react when I hear adults claiming that the media has nothing to do with individual feelings about our bodies.

    Further the bleating of the advertising and fashion industries that they have nothing to do with shaping individual and society's views on body shape and beauty; and that they are merely 'reflecting' tastes, pisses me off to the point of explosion!

    The fashion industry, in the main, is misogynistic, bullying, parasitical, brain washing and carcinogenic to a mainly material and capitalist based society.

    They and the fast food industries are responsible, in my view, for the majority of emotional and physical problems experienced by people suffering from eating disorders and body dysmorphia. They are also responsible for a lot of the child-hood bullying that goes on around body shape and size.

    The cosmetic industry, adds further to the misery of modern life, claiming as it does, that to make the best of oneself, body modifying surgery is the only answer. It in effect is a catalyst to the emergence of body dysmorphia as a major problem in today's society and throughout that of the western world.

    I am lucky that because of shit in my childhood, (and thanks to my strong Mother); my need to rebel, challenge and question in order to survive has resulted in an attitude that I don't give a damn about how I am perceived in terms of my body, (or much else to be frank) and have therefore had the strength to say, "If you don't like how I look, then that's your problem, not mine".

    "I am me and proud of being me, and so those who don’t like me can go and....."

    Fortunately, I also don't have the arrogance, ignorance and insensitivity to accuse those with body image problems as not having a real problem.

    My heart go out to all those suffering in this way, because the issue of self worth is the most potentially damaging thing to our collective humanity, and individual quality of life.

    Body Gossip and Gok Wan are modern day heroes as far as I am concerned, and I am sure they have even saved one or two lives in their campaign to address what I consider to be a modern day evil - weight problems and body dysmorphia in all its many forms and symptoms.